For more than a century, Bible scholars and university researchers have been systematically debunking what ordinary Christians believed about Jesus of Nazareth. But what if the most recent Biblical scholarship actually affirmed the New Testament? What if Jesus was not a Zealot revolutionary, or a Greek Cynic philosopher, or a proto-feminist Gnostic, but precisely what he claimed to be: the divine Son of Man prophesied in the Book of Daniel who gave his life as a ransom for many? What if everything the Gospels say about Jesus of Nazareth—his words, his deeds, his plans—turned out to be true? Searching for Jesus changes “what if?” to “what is,” debunking the debunkers and showing how the latest scholarship supports orthodox Christian belief.
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About the Author
Robert J. Hutchinson is an award-winning writer and author who studied philosophy as an undergraduate, moved to Israel to learn Hebrew, and earned a graduate degree in New Testament. Hutchinson’s most recent book is Searching for Jesus: New Discoveries in the Quest for Jesus of Nazareth, an overview of recent archaeological finds and new developments in biblical scholarship that are calling into question much of what skeptical scholars have assumed and asserted about Jesus over the past two centuries.
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Searching for Jesus
New Discoveries in the Quest for Jesus of Nazareth â" and How They Confirm the Gospel Accounts
By Robert J. Hutchinson
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2015 Robert J. Hutchinson
All rights reserved.
IS THERE EYEWITNESS TESTIMONY IN THE GOSPELS?
New Approaches to the New Testament as History
[M]any have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses.
— LUKE 1:1–2 NRSV
As an observant Jew, Jesus of Nazareth almost certainly made the arduous, three-day trip from the Sea of Galilee region to the holy city of Jerusalem many times in his life. In the first century, Jews would often make the trek three times a year, for the three major pilgrim feasts of Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Weeks), and Sukkot (Tabernacles). According to Luke, Jesus and his parents, Mary and Joseph, went to Jerusalem for Passover "every year" (2:41). It was a daunting journey — as anyone who has hiked in the Jordan River valley can attest — and a testimony to the deep faith of Galilean Jews that they would make it regularly. On this score the gospel of John's descriptions of Jesus' travels are probably more accurate historically than those of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke); John describes Jesus coming and going to the Jerusalem area many times over a three-year period. Likely for simplicity's sake and to make their stories easier to follow, the Synoptics condense Jesus' itinerary into two basic phases: his ministry in Galilee and his final trip to Jerusalem, rather than including accounts of his coming and going.
On one occasion, according to John's gospel (5:2–10), Jesus entered Jerusalem through the Sheep Gate, near what is today called the Lion's Gate. Outside the city walls and immediately before the gate, there were two large pools of water surrounded by colonnades. One was called Bethesda or Bethzatha, where people came who wanted to be cured of various ailments: "Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes," the gospel of John explains. "In these lay many invalids — blind, lame, and paralyzed" (5:2–3 NRSV).
One of the sick people there had been ill, John tells us, for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw the man, he stopped and asked, "Do you want to be made well?"
The man replied that he was too sick to get into the healing water of the pool. "Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up," he explained. "While I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me."
Jesus looked at him, then said, "Stand up, take your mat and walk" (5:7–8 NRSV). And, according to John, that is precisely what the man did.
However, it was the Sabbath, and anyone who has been to Jerusalem knows that the devout Jews of Jerusalem take the rules for observing the Sabbath very seriously. Even today, there are special "religious police" with neon vests who walk around the Western Wall Plaza and tell tourists not to take photographs once the Sabbath has begun on Friday evening.
One of the prohibited activities on the Sabbath is carrying, or, more technically, "transferring," something from one domain to another. During the time of Jesus and in the decades after, the rabbis were debating precisely what the Torah means by "work." The Torah forbids "work" on the Sabbath (Ex. 31:12–17), but does not define what "work" actually is. The rabbis came up with thirty-nine categories of creative activity that constitute work — including planting, gathering, tying, building, lighting or extinguishing a fire, cooking, and so on.
Eventually it was also decided that carrying something from one dwelling to another was a type of work as well, and it was forbidden. To make life easier in communities with large numbers of Orthodox Jews, however, an ingenious solution was devised: an eruv. An eruv is an artificial "household" that is created by stringing wire or twine around a neighborhood, marking it off as a single living area. That way, children or belongings can be carried within it on the Sabbath. Today in Jerusalem, and particularly in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, you can see discreet wires with pieces of cloth tied to them strung around the city from pole to pole, creating the eruv. This is the world in which Jesus lived.
"Now that day was a sabbath," John continues. "So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, 'It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat'" (5:9–10 NRSV).
We will confront this highly sensitive issue of Jesus' attitude to Sabbath observance and whether that put him at odds with the mainstream Jewish community in another chapter. But for now, what is interesting is how John's account matches very closely what we now know both about Jerusalem and about the customs of the people within it.
WAS THE AUTHOR OF JOHN AN EYEWITNESS?
John's gospel is very different from the Synoptics. It exhibits what scholars call a "high Christology," which means that Jesus is portrayed more as an all-knowing God-man than as a Jewish prophet or seer. As a result, many critical scholars in past decades insisted it was written very late, perhaps in the early second century, in a largely pagan milieu, and thus cannot be considered historical. For a "hundred years the character of John's Gospel as a theological, rather than a historical document, became more and more axiomatic for [New Testament] scholarship," writes the respected British New Testament scholar James D. G. Dunn.
And yet there are historical details found in John that are found nowhere else, either in the New Testament or in secular sources. One of the details that John gets right is the pool of Bethesda.
When you go into Jerusalem today through the Lion's Gate, the first thing you see on your right is the large complex of the Church of St. Anne, the mother of Mary, a courtyard with a crusader-era church maintained by the White Fathers of France. Inside the courtyard are the massive ruins of the very deep pools of Bethesda. In 1871, while working to restore the church, archaeologists accidentally uncovered the pools, and they spent the next century or so excavating them.
There are two pools. The first was created in the eighth century BC when a dam was built across the Beth Zetha Valley (2 Kings 18:17) that comes into Jerusalem itself. The second pool was built in the second century BC to provide the temple with more water, probably for cleaning sheep for the sacrifices (hence the Sheep Gate). Eventually it became used as a kind of spa for healing.
The porticoes mentioned by John are no longer there, but Saint Jerome, writing in the early fifth century from nearby Bethlehem, describes the pools precisely:
Bethesda, a pool of Jerusalem ... had five porticoes; [local people] show a double pool, one of which is fed with winter rainfalls; surprisingly, the water of the other appears reddish as if tainted by blood and thus attests its ancient use by the priests who, as it is said, would come here to wash the [sacrificial] victims, and this is where its name comes from.
In short, John reveals an intimate knowledge of Jerusalem that led Israeli archaeologist Rami Arav and John Rousseau, a fellow of the Jesus Seminar and research associate at the University of California, Berkeley, neither conservative Christians, to conclude that "the primary author of the Gospel of John was probably an eyewitness to several events in the life of Jesus" and was "well acquainted with Jerusalem and its surroundings."
THE GOSPELS AS HISTORICAL SOURCES
One of the first issues anyone interested in Jesus of Nazareth must confront is whether, or to what degree, the New Testament as we now have it is a reliable record of who Jesus was, what he did, and what he said. That's because the New Testament is practically our only source for information about Jesus. There is no mention of Jesus of Nazareth in any non-Christian source for nearly a century after his death around AD 30. The handful of non-Christian sources we do have — writings from Roman historians in the early second century and traditions recorded in the Jewish Talmud — have only a few scattered references in passing. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote about every detail of his homeland in two enormous works of twenty-seven combined volumes, mentions Jesus only in two brief passages, and what little he does write has been so obviously tampered with by later Christian copyists that some historians (although not the majority) think those passages are outright forgeries. We do know of at least thirty apocryphal gospels written about Jesus in the earliest centuries of the first millennium — besides the four canonical versions found in the New Testament. But of these, we have the complete texts of only four and fragments from seven, and these apocryphal texts were by and large written hundreds of years after the canonical Gospels and likely contained little historical information, judging from the ones we have extant.
As historical sources, the canonical Gospels themselves present many challenges to historians. Some experts argue that the basic outline or chronology of Jesus' adult career as presented in the Synoptic Gospels came from a single author, Mark, whom Matthew and Luke follow, often word for word. The difference is that Matthew and Luke added a lot of extra material, such as the Beatitudes, that Mark didn't include. What's more, the gospel writers plainly edited their sources, possibly to eliminate facts they didn't like or which they thought might reflect negatively on Jesus' image — for example, that he got angry (Mark 3:5) or that his healings didn't always work completely on the first try (Mark 8:22–26).
Even more important, the creators of the Gospels are plainly biased. They state flat-out that they believe Jesus was the long-awaited Jewish messiah, the Savior of the entire world, whom God raised from the dead after Jesus' ignominious crucifixion. The evangelist John tells us directly that he writes "so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:31 NRSV). As a result, the evangelists appear to arrange their accounts to emphasize the meaning of Jesus' life and deeds more than strict chronology. They do not always agree on the details. They have different outlooks on who Jesus was and what he was trying to achieve. They contain what some critical scholars suspect, at least, are outright errors of fact. For example, Matthew says that Jesus was born before Herod the Great died (2:1) in 4 BC, while Luke says that he was born when Quirinius, the governor of Syria, ordered a census to take place (2:2), which occurred in AD 6. One of the gospel writers, probably Luke, appears to have gotten at least the year of Jesus' birth wrong. The incidents of Jesus' life also appear to be arranged more for the editorial purposes of the Gospel authors than for accurately recording a history of his life.
Because of these challenges, early twentieth-century New Testament scholars and historical Jesus writers — such as Martin Dibelius (ca. 1883– 1947) and Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976) — tended to dismiss large portions of the New Testament as legendary, invented by the early Christian community. However, in the past few decades, as we'll see, many scholars — even Jewish or agnostic scholars working in secular universities — have begun to reevaluate this preemptory attitude. For example, a Talmud expert at the University of California, Berkeley, Daniel Boyarin, insists that many incidents, ideas, and sayings of Jesus in the New Testament that previous generations of scholars thought were simply made up by the early Christian community may actually be historical. Other experts, such as the secular New Testament scholar James Crossley at the University of Sheffield in the UK, have challenged the alleged late datings of the Gospels. Still others, such as Richard Bauckham at the University of St. Andrews, are challenging the notion that the Gospels are not based on eyewitness testimony. Even many non-Christians, including Israeli archaeologists and Jewish scholars, now concede that the Gospels likely contain information that could only have come from eyewitness observers. We will look at all these new developments in later chapters.
DID JESUS OF NAZARETH EVEN EXIST?
While many modern scholars believe that some incidents in the Gospels were invented by the early Christian community, virtually all believe Jesus was a real historical person who lived in the early first century of the common era. There are some exceptions, however. In the nineteenth century, a number of rationalist philosophers — most famously the German writer David Strauss (1808–1874) and philosopher Bruno Bauer (1809–1882) — argued that Jesus of Nazareth likely never even existed at all, that the entire New Testament can be shown to be nothing but a work of creative fiction. This point of view is sometimes referred to as "Christ myth theory" or "mythicism" (as opposed to "mysticism"). Few mainstream historians take it seriously, but in recent years there has been a revival of sorts among college students, amateur historians, and a handful of academics. There are now literally dozens, even hundreds, of websites and bloggers dedicated to popularizing the Christ myth arguments — such as JesusNeverExisted. com — and that refer to Jesus as Christians' "imaginary friend." As one of the theory's chief contemporary proponents, the Canadian author Earl Doherty, puts it, mythicism is "the theory that no historical Jesus worthy of the name existed, that Christianity began with a belief in a spiritual, mythical figure, that the Gospels are essentially allegory and fiction, and that no single person lay at the root of the Galilean preaching tradition."
As you might expect, Christ myth writers and bloggers are all over the ballpark in terms of their arguments. They range from the serious to the silly, from those who voice scholarly doubts about particular incidents in the Gospels to those promoting elaborate conspiracy theories — such as the idea that Jesus was invented by the Roman Caesars to help manage the restless Jewish population. There appear to be four academic heavyweights of the Christ myth blogging craze: Robert Price, a former Baptist pastor with a PhD in both systematic theology and New Testament studies and the author of The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man (2003); Thomas Brodie, a Dominican friar with a doctor of sacred theology (STD) degree from the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Rome and author of Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery; Thomas Thompson, an American professor at the University of Copenhagen who earned his PhD in Old Testament at Temple University and who is a famous pioneer in what is called biblical minimalism — the belief that most of the Bible is fictional; and Richard Carrier, a blogger who has a PhD in ancient history from Columbia University and is the author of On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. Other popular mythicist writers who seem to attract a following include David Fitzgerald, author of Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All; Earl J. Doherty, author of Jesus: Neither God Nor Man; René Salm, author of The Myth Of Nazareth: The Invented Town Of Jesus; and Frank Zindler, author of The Jesus the Jews Never Knew.
Excerpted from Searching for Jesus by Robert J. Hutchinson. Copyright © 2015 Robert J. Hutchinson. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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Table of Contents
ContentsAuthor's Note, xv,
1. Is There Eyewitness Testimony in the Gospels?, 1,
2. Liar, Lunatic ... or Legend?, 39,
3. Are the Gospels Forgeries?, 69,
4. Have Archaeologists Found Jesus' House?, 91,
5. Did the Church Invent the Idea of a Suffering Messiah?, 117,
6. Just How Kosher Was Jesus?, 137,
7. Did Jesus Have a Secret Message?, 163,
8. Was Jesus a Zealot Revolutionary?, 181,
9. Did Jesus Plan His Own Execution?, 201,
10. Do We Have Proof for the Resurrection?, 219,
11. Jesus, God and Man, 253,
Selected Bibliography, 279,
About the Author, 349,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Read this to get the whole picture of Jesus and the evidence recently found.
SEARCHING FOR JESUS by Robert Hutchinson is a must-read analysis of the Gospels and New Testament regarding the historical proof of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. It was written for anyone with an interest in biblical history. Hutchinson takes you right along with him as he scrutinizes both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible and throughout different countries of the world in search of the actual sites written about in the Bible. The research is indeed impressive and expertly executed, and this is a thorough, comprehensive tour de force of the validation of Jesus Christ’s existence as well as the accuracy of the Gospels and the New Testament. Christians should never allow or rely on any publication to challenge their faith in Jesus Christ or any of His teachings, and although this does present some issues and questions, what it hopefully does facilitate is a dialogue among the faithful to strengthen their beliefs. At the end of the day, what it reinforces is the question, what do you believe?